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Hydroponic agriculture could help preserve scarce water in Jordan

Hydroponic agriculture, which does not require nearly as much water as traditionally grown crops, is being introduced to Jordan, a country with high water insecurity.

Jordan is the country with the third-highest water insecurity in the world, after Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. By 2030, 40% of all groundwater is expected to be depleted, as it is being used at a much greater rate than it can be recharged.

The answer to a fast approaching crisis might be in a greenhouse in Madaba province (a 40-minute drive from Amman) where hundreds of tomato plants are lifted half a meter from the ground in a 10 meter (32-foot) high, multi-span structure that takes up an area of 7,200 square meters (77,500 square feet).

Hydroponics is a high-tech farming technique, where soil is replaced by tuff, peat moss or, as in this case, by coconut fiber supports,” Doaa al-Amayreh, an agriculture engineer with the Jordan Hydroponic Agriculture and Employment Development Project, told Al-Monitor.

The three-year project (2018-2020) is supported by the Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands with 12 million euros (around $13.4 million). The project aims at increasing water efficiency and profitability for farmers. It is being implemented by the Jordanian firm, Eco Consult, which is in charge of technical support and training.

Amayreh visits the greenhouse as part of the project, making sure that plants are receiving the right amounts of nutrients and that all parameters are set correctly.

Traditional agriculture consumes 65% of Jordan’s water supply every year, while contributing only 2.5% of GDP. But these tomato plants require 40% to 50% less water, as they do not obtain nutrients from the soil, but rather from a solution directly injected into the coconut fibers. For leafy greens like lettuce, using the hydroponic technique requires 80% less water than lettuce grown traditionally in Jordan, according to a study by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). This system also allows plants to grow faster and reduces the use of pesticides and herbicides. Amayreh, like all the other people working inside the greenhouse, wears gloves, a cap and a sterile coverall to minimize contamination.

The high-tech greenhouse in Madaba, named Al-Jabaly Greenhouse, was completed in December 2018: There are fewer than 10 hydroponic farms this big in Jordan, and less than a handful with a comparable climate control system. The Al-Jabaly greenhouse is the second largest farm in the country partially funded by the Dutch Ministry for Foreign Affairs. The installment cost around $500,000, half covered by the Dutch ministry and the other half by the owner of the greenhouse.

“The structure is equipped with sensors that allow us to control the climate and ensure the best conditions for the plants at every stage of their growth,” Amayreh said. In late May, Jordan was hit by a heat wave, with temperatures reaching up to 38 Celsius (100 F.) in Amman — 5 to 7 degrees Celsius above their annual average during this time of the year. This points to a concerning trend: a 2013 report published by the Journal of Taibah University for Science documented an increase in average temperatures in Jordan by 1.5 to 2 degrees since 1992.

But as the outside temperature approaches 37 degrees, in the range of a minute, the fogging and ventilation system cools down the temperature inside the greenhouse.

Still, shifting to hydroponics has its challenges. Besides the large investments required, farmers have to gain new knowledge. A hydroponic growing system has little water and nutrient buffer; therefore, small mistakes can rapidly lead to large consequences. The whole irrigation system is computerized: Electrical conductivity, pH, temperature, relative humidity and water amount must be constantly measured and adapted to each crop.

Despite these challenges, Firas al-Jabaly, general manager of Al-Jabaly Agri Group, which owns the greenhouse, does not regret the investment: “The regional crisis in Iraq and Syria affected us badly, and caused our exports to drop,” Jabaly told Al-Monitor. “When we got the chance to apply for funding to convert part of our traditional greenhouses to hydroponics we were excited: We can now grow for a longer season, face climate change and get better and healthier products that can compete on the international market.”

Hydroponics is quickly developing in Jordan thanks to foreign investments in projects such as the one funded by the Dutch ministry.

Between 2014 and 2016, USAID funded the Hydroponic Green Farming Initiative with $1.2 million. The aim of the project is to promote cost-effective and environmentally friendly farming techniques. Through this program, USAID funded several community-based hydroponic projects, and a 3,200 square-foot greenhouse in Zarqa that currently produces 29,000 heads of lettuce using only 7.5 liters (2 gallons) of water per plant (traditionally grown plants require around 40 liters each).

The US-funded projects also were implemented by Eco Consult. “Jordan should follow in the footsteps of countries like Spain, where most of the agriculture in the dry region of Almeria relies on the hydroponic technique, and we hope to convert 30% of the farming [in Jordan] in the next 10 or 15 years,” Raed Daoud, managing director at Eco Consult, told Al-Monitor.

“If we continue with traditional agriculture, we will lose jobs, because there is not enough water to sustain the current level of production. On the contrary, hydroponics will create more job opportunities for engineers and specialized workers: It is the future,” he concluded.

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